In 2009, Federal Agents from the United States Fish and Wildlife Service gained access to and seized woods, documents, and guitars from Gibson Guitars’ Massman Road facility in Nashville. Gibson was being investigated for violating the Lacey Act (a U.S. Conservation law) by importing endangered species of rosewood from Madagascar. This was well documented at the time, and Gibson ended up paying their dues, but this story is the tip of a much more widespread issue facing guitar makers worldwide, especially in the classical guitar industry.
Manuel Rodriguez III is passionate about sustainability and the guitar. As we speak on a slightly crackly telephone line, he is promoting his latest range of guitars in Cornwall, England. “The problem with Indian rosewood is worldwide and not going away,” he says. “The Indian Rosewood in Africa, for instance, is just being killed.”
In Builsa South, Ghana, in July of this year, a Member of Parliament called on the Bureau of National Investigations to look intothe illegal logging of rosewood. The MP described it as “sheer greed for money and insensitivity to and total disregard for the fragile ecosystem of Builsa South.” One estimate states that China—one of the leading manufacturers of classical and acoustic guitars— imports nearly 96 percent of all rosewood from Ghana. This comes after Ghana’s government supposedly banned the export of all rosewood in January 2017 and gave the Forestry Commission a directive to cease issuing felling permits for rosewood.
At one point in Rodriguez’s recent history, the storied Spanish company moved some of its production to China. “The dollar was so bad with the euro that we had to make the move,” Manuel Rodriguez says. “We’d survived two world wars and one civil war; we couldn’t let the company go just like that. Now we’ve moved everything back—everything is made in Spain. We have 52 luthiers. But 90 percent of all instruments in the world are made in China—we must battle that.”
While many countries and continents around the world have laws and acts in place to prevent illegal imports, China itself has no real timber legality framework or legislation to prevent importation of illegal timber or timber products. And therein lies the problem.
China has purportedly been working to resolve this. Even “The Implementation Regulation of Forest Law of China,”issued in 2000, stated that timber procurement groups and individuals should not purchase timber without a harvesting license or other proof of legal origin. But with the lack of an effective law enforcement system in place, little has been done to achieve this outcome.
A recent report on the EU Timber Regulation (EUTR) shows that illegal logging in the EU is abundant too, but there is enforcement. In Austria, Interpol seized 60 tons of illegal timber as part of a global operation. As a consequence, FSC has disassociated itself from a company linked to illegal logging practices in Romania.
When any of this wood is presented to luthiers, it can look just like the legal species. “The way to control this is through suppliers,” Rodriguez says, “not the guitar makers. We guitar manufacturers cannot control this. It’s an issue hopefully going to be discussed by CITES [Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora] at the Geneva Convention this year. They decide which woods will be protected and which will not; which woods can be used for manufacturing as selected by the wood brokers, who then sell the wood to us. Everything could change. The musician shouldn’t be having to deal with this [by choosing to buy guitars made from one wood over another].
“The second-hand guitar market is booming worldwide for all sorts of guitars,” he adds. “Ours is the second-oldest brand of guitars in the world—since 1905, so 112 years. Everywhere I go, I see more and more people are buying up older instruments. One of the main reasons for this is that these old instruments weren’t CITES-controlled—and they sound better. People are buying all second-hand guitars: brands including Gibson, Fender, Martin, Taylor. Customers want the played-in sound—so that is what we luthiers are all trying to achieve, and it’s a way for guitarists to avoid all this mess [of sustainability].
“If we have to cut down trees to use for building, we make sure we plant more. We always use FSC woods and, wherever possible, dead wood. We can source all wood that is 100 percent [certified]—ebony, mahogany, cedar, etc. The labels on all our guitars show what percentage of wood is FSC-certified. We are now working toward an exciting new model, which is made from 100 percent FSC-certified wood and laminated—this will be due for release at the next NAMM show,” Rodriguez says.
Another obvious solution to work around endangered wood issues is to use more locally sourced woods. Rodriguez’s response is confident: “We have to use tropical-sounding woods—they are the best-sounding woods in the world. Some European woods are good, such as maple, spruce, and walnut. But the amount of wood the guitar industry uses is nothing compared to the Chinese market. Our market is considerably smaller; their market is geared around making furniture for domestic use and in hospitals and airports.”
There are also programs out there, such as the Leonardo Guitar Research Project, that are experimenting with building from nontropical woods. “It’s a wonderful idea,” Rodriguez says. “We’ve been working with Bolivian eucalyptus—it’s a beautiful wood and makes amazing-sounding backs and sides. And it’s a fast-growing tree. We have to investigate other resources. It’s not easy, though, as the guitar has to be light, so we can’t use heavy woods. Taylor is planting ebony in other countries, and these are small trees. The more they plant, the more business they get—we must think that way, to plant more trees around the world.
This is a really interesting video about the guitar-making process at MR Guitars:
“We’re peaceful globe-trotters,” Rodriguez says of his company. “We distribute to 120 countries. From what I see in practices around the world, we are killing our planet. People aren’t seeing the problem we have with sustainability, and we need to do something quickly or we’ll be too late. I don’t see Spanish companies doing enough—they talk about it, but then feel it’s not worth it. It’s almost a way of life you have to change. We have to embrace more sustainable practices now. We go for a natural finish. No gloss means fewer pollutants. It’s a thinner coat and takes less time to apply, so less time spent in the studio and a better working environment for our luthiers. What’s more—it sounds better.”
Part of Rodriguez’s mission is to take his guitars around the world, to demonstrate and give to world leaders and the heads of cultural organizations so they can see the craft of traditional luthiers and perhaps be inspired. And, of course, Rodriguez also stays in contact with dealers, happy to explain his company’s ever-evolving philosophy to anyone who will listen. He is a fixture at several instrument trade shows.
“Stores in the UK, for instance, get very excited about seeing the makers of the instruments,” says Rodriguez. “I try to be creative; I don’t like to copy. The classical guitar world is generally very conservative, but I’m trying to make it more modern. We now compete with computer consoles, tablets, and iPhones for the attention of kids, who play games rather than musical instruments. We need music to be more human. We’re still using our heritage to spread the word—Spanish guitars made in Spain for over a hundred years. We take it around the globe. I feel like a citizen of the world, of a very small world. Ours is a global, peaceful mission.”
The international reputation Spanish guitar companies once had is changing. There is a different landscape now. Once upon a time, Spain’s reputation for guitars was built on its traditional classical-guitar heritage and was respected for this. Now, for Rodriguez, innovation is key. “Our Sol y Sombre models have cedar and spruce tops and 24 frets—it’s one of our more innovative models and good for playing bossa nova, jazz, classical. The sound hole is on one side [the upper bout] and the MR logo is on the top.”
Another trend Rodriguez notes in the industry is Spanish guitars being remarketed as “nylon strings” for the general guitar market, without drawing attention to the Spanish craft. Some makers find this intimidating, but tapping into this, Rodriguez has gone one step further: “I’m making electric neck cutaways so the electric guitar player who needs a speedy neck on a nylon instrument can have that, as well as a narrower body. The classical guitar world has to change for the modern world and musician.
“We do three things,” Rodriguez says, drawing our conversation to a close. “First, we aim to enrich the sound industry. Second, we help support foundations like The Carter Center and Antonio Banderas’ foundation—we don’t have $100,000, but we have hands. And finally, what we do with sustainability—solar power and a choice of varnishes. There’s so much sun in Spain—why aren’t we all using solar panels?”
(Editor’s Note: Since this article was published, the new CEO of Guitarras Manuel Rodriguez—Marcelo Farhi—sent out a letter that contained the surprising announcement that “after a long journey in the brand, Manuel Rodríguez, grandson of the founder, will be no longer part of Manuel Rodríguez Guitars anymore. However, this decision should not be considered more than another change that shapes the history of a company with a deep vocation for the development of culture.” We have no other details to offer on this development at the moment.)
Below, Dr. Eduardo Costa plays his arrangement of Antonio Banderas’ Cancion del Mariachi on a 2017 Manuel Rodriguez Especial FG Model concert classical: